The U.S. imports more tequila than any other country. Technically, tequila is a type of mezcal, a term encompassing any spirit that is distilled from the agave plant. Tequila is distilled from a particular species of the plant, Agave tequilana Weber var. azul or blue agave. But other spirits distilled from agave go by different names, including raicilla, bacanero, and sotol. These spirits taste more complex than most tequilas with a wide variety of flavor notes, including hints of cured ham, soft cheese, and cilantro.
Raicilla earned DO status (denominación de origen) in June 2019 and is made mostly in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, including in Puerto Vallarta. The agave there grows near the sea, often lending this spirit a minerally, briny taste along with hints of black pepper and citrus.
Bacanora was granted DO status in 2000 after being prohibited as moonshine for most of the 20th century. This spirit is made only from Agave Pacifica (A. angustifolia) in the dry Sonora desert region that borders Arizona and the Gulf of California. The dusty climate gives bacanora a drier, less smoky taste.
Sotol is made with the desert shrub Dasylirion, a different plant altogether. Various species of Dasylirion create different flavor nuances in sotol, but sotol usually has a gentle smoky finish from various woods such as acacia, mesquite and oak used to roast the shrub before distilling the liquid.
One species of grape vine, Vitis vinifera, accounts for 98 percent of the wine we drink today, including varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The remaining 2 percent comes from hybrid vines, and the wine world may be looking at a new normal working with more and more hybrids. The challenge with vinifera is their inability to naturally fight off diseases. For centuries, winemakers have routinely sprayed copper and sulfur on the vines to combat disease, and modern winemakers also use fungicides. However, concerns over the environmental impact of these viticulture practices have pushed wine experts to experiment with more and more hybrids.
Hybrids have historically been viewed as a lower quality alternative to vinifera. For instance, New York’s Finger Lakes region had been a hybrid-based wine industry until Ukrainian immigrant, Dr. Konstantin Frank, introduced vinifera to the region. Vinifera developed a reputation for producing more serious, dry wines, while hybrids became associated with cheap, sweet tasting wine, a perception that continues to this day.
But hybrids are showing promise not just in the field but also in the glass. The hybrids generating the most interest today are crossbred grape varieties with at least 85 percent vinifera in their genomes. These so-called PIWI or Pilzwiderstandsfähige (fungus-resistant) vines significantly reduce the environmental impact of treating vinifera. Jan Matthias Klein, a German winemaker who has been experimenting with PIWIs, says, “Quality-wise they’re on a par with traditional varieties.” Hybrid wines have been doing well in blind tastings in the area, and winegrowers have high hopes that hybrid wines may be on the brink of a resurgence.
Beer bros aren’t the only players in the game. Mariana Schneider launched Gangsta Ladies of Wort (GLOW) to prove the point. GLOW is a global activist organization that brews collaboration beers and advocates for marginalized people in the brewing industry, including women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. GLOW aims to provide marginalized beer professionals with employment opportunities, financial aid, education, safety, and when necessary, counseling.
According to a 2019 survey by The Brewers Association, a craft beer trade group, only 7.5% of breweries employed women in brewing roles, while 54% of service positions were staffed by women. The study also revealed that among the 54% of breweries owned by a single person, 96% were owned by men. These gender disparities run through typical brewery salaries as well. Data from the popular beer website Beervana (based on information from Glassdoor and Payscale) shows that the average salary for entry-level brewery employees is between $22,000 and $29,000 in San Diego. However, entry-level female brewery employees can expect to earn 11% less than males. Part of GLOW’s mission is to overcome these employment and economic disparities.
There’s a relatively new tequila in town. Just don’t call it tequila. Cristalino is a clear, oak-aged tequila filtered with charcoal similar to the way many white rums are made. Mature tequila may be labeled blanco (white, aged 2 months or less), Joven (young or gold, typically a blend that’s colored with caramel coloring), reposado (aged at least 2 months), añejo (extra-aged at least 1 year), or extra-añejo (ultra-aged), depending on whether the spirit was barrel aged for two months or for several years. Cristalino is white like a blanco but must be aged for at least two months, so it tastes more like a reposado or añejo. The amber color imparted from barrel-aging is removed via charcoal filtration, giving the spirit its name.
The first commercial cristalino was launched in 2012 by Don Julio as “Don Julio 70 Añejo Claro.” It was recently renamed, Don Julio Añejo Cristalino. Many tequila producers have released cristalino bottlings, but use other terms without referencing “Cristalino” in the name, making the category more obscure as a whole. Producers also have more labeling freedom because cristalino may be barrel-aged anywhere from 2 months to several years, deepening the flavors, yet the spirit remains clear in color.
American wineries are beginning to lose their nerve as business customers in restaurants, bars, and tasting rooms dwindle amid the pandemic shutdown. Much of the wine industry is scrambling for solutions.
Matt and Sara Licklider—owners of Lioco Wine Company, a small wine producer in California—recently furloughed their nine-person staff, including themselves. The decision came after the company faced steep revenue losses due to restaurant and tasting room closures, which make up for the majority of its sales. As the coronavirus eats away at the hospitality industry, independent businesses owners aren’t going down without a fight. “We aren’t going anywhere,” Sara Licklider said. “But I’m not sure what our business will look like on the other side of all this.”
While some wineries simply put things on hold, others have been able to hang in there with meager sales. “I expected sales to crash for months,” said Phillippe Langner, owner of Hesperian Wines, “but in fact they haven’t…I can still work.” Langner has been able to keep his business alive with cost-cutting measures such as dropping the price of his $150 cabernet by half and maintaining a small staff.
As circumstances grow tense in the hospitality industry, American wineries are both hopeful and fearful of what’s to come.
As craft breweries and distilleries proliferate, spent grains continue to pile up. Despite being organic waste products, spent grains are high in acidity and bio-oxygen demand, so they aren’t easily disposed of, even in cities with large wastewater treatment plants. Fortunately, spent grains still contain valuable nutrients, and drink-makers have long partnered with farmers to make use of them as nutritious feed for cattle, hogs, chicken, fish and other animals. Kentucky’s Bardstown Bourbon Company gives away about 107,000 gallons a day to local farmers, who come pick it up for free. On a smaller scale, Colby Frey of Nevada’s Frey Ranch Estate Distillery, gives his spent grain to a neighboring farm as cattle feed, while liquids from the spent grain go into the farm’s irrigation system to balance the soil’s pH levels.
Spent grains can also be upcycled in the baking industry. In Toronto, the Spent Goods Company works with bakeries to repurpose spent grains as baked goods sold in grocery stores, farmers markets, schools, and restaurants. California’s ReGrained company transforms them into snack puffs and bars, and pasta maker Barilla recently invested in the company to expand its product line. Rise Products in Brooklyn takes spent grains from local breweries and turns them into light and dark barley flours. A number of New York City restaurants use the barley flour in pasta, granola and brownies, and food companies like Kellogg’s, Whole Foods, DiGiorno and Nestlé have all asked for samples of the flour for use in its products. Look for more products made with spent grains hitting supermarket shelves soon.